Cracking the Code of Cicada 3301 | EPISODE 2

(mysterious music) – [Robotic voice] Hello, everyone. – [Announcer] In January 2012,
a mysterious organization released an intricate
puzzle on the internet saying it was looking for
highly intelligent individuals. The group issued a new puzzle
the following two years until its latest one couldn’t be solved. It remains a mystery to those who still are trying to
crack it– four years later. No one knows who’s behind the puzzle or how the latest piece can be decoded. Why do these solvers
continue against all odds? And who might give us insight into the mind behind Cicada 3301. – [Robotic voice] The key has always been right in front of your eyes. Good luck, 3301. (futuristic music) (train running on tracks) – As a kid, I believed I could sell a little seed of curiosity into the minds of people. To think about how to
create a society in which the open exchange of
information is encouraged. (train station announcement) As a kid, I show anything that is there. I really like to get people to think about how things fit together and how they can be rearranged in order to create new things. It may put you on the map
to intelligence agencies because you dabble with
breaking encryption. You dabble with a certain kind of agriculture and e-flux. You expose yourself and you
may be a threat to some people. I’m Brother Box; actually I don’t wanna talk about my age. People are not supposed
to know my age, actually. But I will just keep a brief
introduction about myself. My name is Brother Box, I live in Germany. I study IT Security. I remember I played my first
computer game at around four, and I didn’t understand much because they were all in English and I kinda had to guess my way around. And that was actually a
motivation for me to learn English because I was tired of asking
grown-ups what things meant. Only my brother knows that
I am, at all, into Cicada. I keep it away from most people because most people don’t connect with us. Hackers are driven by
the urge to know things and mostly about the things
that they don’t know. ‘Cause a hacker considers
the fact that someone may forbid you to know
something as a threat to their own curiosity. I believe that the people
that are behind Cicada are driven by much the same mindset. When I started with Cicada, I was the guy who asked the questions. I was the guy who was slow at learning. Now, I am the person that
gets asked these questions. I like to believe that I
am one of the most rigorous and thorough members of our community. People value my word and my judgment. Our community is a bit different. When you’re part of us,
you’re kinda part of us and over time you form this bond. (mysterious music) (chattering) I first got to know Onon in
2012, but I’ve never met him. He is not necessarily a
part of the core team, but I think this entire operation
would be poor without him. (mysterious music) (chattering) (speaking in a foreign language) – Cicada puzzlers usually
wrap up within a month. This puzzle has persisted and denied us any resolve for three years. I believe Liber Primus is solvable, but at this point only a
very fresh mind can do it. Someone who looks at things
in a completely different way. (mysterious music) (speaking in a foreign language) (uplifting music) (speaking in a foreign language) – To effectively solve Cicada, you have to have a very inquisitive mind and you have to be technically capable. And I believe that in Cicada’s mindset, it was important to connect these people into one central hub. We took a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to solve Liber Primus, and I would like to resolve
that piece of their legacy, so maybe we can all move on someday. It is that itch that you can’t scratch, and you want to scratch it so bad. – Hi, okay, so take a look. So this here is this message. Well, in 2016, it was a year and a half before they released this picture. Do you see this large box? – Yeah, that’s outcast data, isn’t it? – Yeah, so doesn’t this
look a lot like that tree, when I zoomed in on it on page 32? – Maybe that’s an angle that we should at least think about. You see how on page, what is it? 57, we are using just
good old gematria, right, which I did not believe
to be a coincidence. In 2013, we had gotten the translation from runes to English and we didn’t know what
to do with them back then because we had new runes. In 2014, we finally got the first runes. On the second to last page of the runes, they said, “There is
a page of the deep web “and it is the duty of every
pilgrim to find this page.” – For the longest time, we had no idea what it could be. We tried a lot of stuff on Tor; scanning Tor to find websites. We found some interesting stuff, but not Cicada (chuckles). – The deep web is a vast and inept space. And unless you know what
you want to find in it, you’re probably not going to find it. – What if we use plain
text on page 57 as the key? On those pages 23 through 26, ’cause it’s a mirrored mayfly. The same mayfly that’s on 57. – Cool idea. – Literally, anything usable out of those possibly repeated words, it is gonna be the most
anyone’s got on this in years. (mysterious music) – Are the keys to
breaking the Liber Primus hidden in history? The importance of
cryptography and code breaking goes back millennia. As long as we’ve had
a need to communicate, we’ve also had a need to keep
those communications secret. (mysterious music) Even Julius Caesar would
send in coded messages for his generals to
read on the battlefield. In much more recent history, the world as we know it might have been dramatically different, if it weren’t for England’s own group of cryptographic solvers, disrupting German’s communications
during World War II. Bletchley Park was home
to their top-secret code breaking operation during the war. The German high command would send encrypted messages all over the battlefields
of Europe and North Africa. (dramatic music) – By 1945, you’ve got nearly
10,000 people working here. Three shifts, 24 hours a day, processing huge amounts of intelligence. – They were confident in the security of these highly sensitive communications because of their secret weapon. It was called Enigma. – Oh my gosh, that’s it? – That’s it. That’s an enigma machine. It’s not a radio set, it doesn’t communicate, it just encrypts. I’ma show you how that happens. – [Man With Glasses] Yes. – [David] What this does is you press the letter, any key you like. I’m gonna press P. You see Y is lit up.
– Right. – The clever part is if I press P again I don’t get Y, I get a different letter. For every key pressed it completely changes the encryption. Knowing how it functioned
was the start of the story, but it’s not the end of
the story by any means. What helped them break this machine to understand the messages sent on it was to understand, basically, how the operators misused it. (mysterious music) The key to breaking Enigma was cribbing. If you could guess part of a message, and you knew what letters
spelled that plain text, you could then offer that
up against the cipher text and start to establish relationships. One of the mistakes the Germans made was to be predictable in their language. Common words were things
like weather forecast. The Germans had weather
ships out the Atlantic that sent weather
forecasts back every day. So, everyday they’re sending a message, the first word which is weather forecast. If you know what those messages are you got a crib into them. So, you used the really
dull, boring messages that you can guess the content of to unlock the ones that
have the real secrecy. – [Man With Glasses] How
does the lessons of Enigma help us solve Cicada? – Just look at the six sequence of runes. One option is to use cribs to guess phrases that you think might be what that message says. And if you do that, you
can then see patterns between the runes and your
plain text characters. And these are the tools that cryptographers have
used throughout history. – Didn’t you say that the English cribbed
for German curse words? – Yeah, they did. They were cribbing for swears in German ’cause they knew about the length of them and the Germans wouldn’t
stop swearing at each other. That and weather reports
are the two biggest things they used for cribbing. When trying to figure
out all this (laughs) – And also the Heil Hitler…
– (foreign word spoken) – So, Box? – That’s me! I’m 12000 percent fed up with outguess. I don’t ever want to hear
that word ever again. – We’re just gonna go over what we’ve done in like
the last week or so. The long and short of that
is we got this giant list which is every giant string of runes that you’ve tried to encrypt. Look, a numerical value of
its fitness with English. – It looks like it has a great
strength and a great weakness because it checks for n-grams in order which could be helpful for
partially decrypted words. – This was used when they were getting partial decryptions on Enigma. So that’s what we did this weekend. I don’t remember… I don’t remember days,
they all blend together. – We have done so much automation on this that the actual solution, if there is one, is probably one that has to
be guided by human brain. – We need something more advanced. – My partners, we need to put our beautiful little heads to it. (calming music) – Around 11 o’clock at night, is usually when we all kinda get together for our hangouts. We go for maybe three or four hours at once every night. I also spend some time outside
of it thinking about it. There’s a lot of that in computing where you’re not working and typing it because you don’t really
know yet how to form it. You have to think it through
and then you just go. People have been so
burned out trying this. So many people have thrown up their hands. They get frustrated with this because it’s like a big wall of text. If Craig can help us,
even decrypt one page, that would be the biggest
break we’ve had since 2014. (door opening) – Hi!
– Hey! – Come on in.
– How’s it going? – Onecool is connecting with Craig Bauer, one of the world top crypto experts, in hopes of gaining some insight in order to crack the Liber Primus. Bauer’s a former resident
historian at the N.S.A. And has literally written the book on famous unsolved puzzles. – Gematria Primus, this
was what they revealed through one of the puzzles and that was used directly to decode some pages. So, it’s mapping from
rune to English letter. Very last page of this, it
translates directly here to P. The next one was A. So, this says parable. – [Craig] So, it was the last page the only one that was
a substitution cipher? – That’s a great question. The second to last page was encrypted with a stream of numbers. So, that gave us the message that said we had to seek
out a page on the deep web. They said it’s everybody’s
duty to find this page. – I mean, we know that Cicada’s obsessed with prime numbers forgetting about this rune correspondence. It sounds like they have really modern implementations
like steganography, and things you have to
look for through outguess. – Yeah.
– It’s not just flat out math, math, math, right?
– Yeah. – And maybe the key is text, in which case, Friedman’s Attack and its generalizations
would be a good approach. – [Narrator] William
Friedman was a geneticist who took on cryptography as a hobby. He later became the first Chief
Cryptologist at the N.S.A. Friedman invented a technique of putting two texts side by side and counting the number of times that identical letters appeared in the same position in both texts. Friedman’s Attack looked at the frequency certain letters appeared and was thereby able to determine whether it was a simple or
a complex encoded message. All this may not sound like much; it greatly reduces the
nearly infinite possibilities you have to try on a puzzle
like the Liber Primus. – So, Friedman’s Attack would basically look at the pairings most likely to give you the letter you see. – So, those very infrequent letters, then you can kind of discard and focus on the common English letters, Right?
– Yes. You might be missing a few letters where rarer letters came into play, but it would just be like reading a book with a lot of typos.
– Really, wow. That’s fascinating ’cause its kind of like taking the analysis we’ve done and really taking it a step further. ‘Cause I hadn’t, I’ve never heard of that and those are kind of the types of ciphers that are great to know about because we’ve really been stuck. We can’t drop the problem, so we’re gonna try this and I’ll kinda get back to the guys about your thoughts on it. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation where you’re like, “I
need to figure it out “and I can’t just let it go” because you’re stubborn.
– Sure. I’m just pleased that it
gave a little bit of a prod to someone to do that and now maybe it’ll come
full circle and help us. If you weren’t persistent, you wouldn’t be attacking ciphers. I mean, it demands that kind of personality.
– Yeah. (calming music)
(crickets chirping) – Nox and I are headed
to meet Elonka Dunin. She’s a noted code breaker best known for her expertise with the C.I.A.’s Kryptos puzzle. She even runs her own solving community, attempting to break the
puzzle’s famous last section. – Can you help us put Cicada in some type of context of crypto puzzles, of the larger world that
you’re so familiar with. – You know more about the details of what’s going on. ‘Cause I have people send me
codes two, three times a week. – I can actually show you if you want.
– Sure, sure, sure! – Typically, the sort of
classical cryptography, letter shifting, Vigenère–
all that sort of style of cryptography they don’t do as much of. A lot of what they’ve done has been like RSA break.
– Techy. – So this really, we were kind of unprepared for what they gave us, which is 58 encrypted pages, either every section or every page has a different encoding, like encryption.
– Okay, okay. – We’ve only decrypted two
in (chuckles) three years. You’re welcome to look through it as much as you want.
– Okay. – This one, the key was. It’s running key the length of the page. It’s the totient of the prime sequence. So, it’s, yeah.
– Okay – Like, you see, yeah.
– Okay. – (laughs) You see the issues
– Okay – we’re having. We’ve been doing a lot with
the law of probabilities of quadgrams and trigrams.
– Oooh, okay, good. – And–
– You really wanna solve this. Yeah, that’s great! Okay! So, I’m just trying to… – It’s a lot, I know.
– Build my mental map. So, I’m just brainstorming, okay, as I’m looking through this. So, the first thing is I’m
looking at the marginalia. Is it the same on each page? – No, and almost on one of it we’ve actually identified what it’s supposed to be.
– (gasps) This look like Bacon. I don’t mean edible bacon.
– No, no, no… – I mean Francis Bacon.
– Francis Bacon. – Really?
– Right. – Yeah.
– Interesting. – Okay, Okay, keep going.
– Okay, I’ve never – I never heard that… – This could also be a Bacon Cipher. So, I tend to think about the psychology of whoever’s creating this. Whoever’s creating these is thinking, “Wow, I’ve
got a lot of smart people “that are gonna crack this
within weeks, you know, days. “I gotta make something really hard.” Let’s assume that it’s the same person. That it’s one person. I would wanna see all
the different puzzles that they’ve done, kind of all lined up. That’s one of the ways I crack code. It’s not cracking the code but understanding the mind
of who created the code, like some of these hacker
codes that I’ve cracked. Some of it is code
solving, but some of it is: Okay, who wrote this? Okay, it was this guy, who’s the guy that runs the convention. Okay, when did he write this? He probably wrote it the
day before the convention ’cause he was late on everything else. So, he’s sleep deprived, he’s probably drunk.
(Nox laughs) What kinds of mistakes
are they gonna make? Instead of shifting left,
they’re gonna shift right. There’s the word ‘the’, right? And then the rest of it just kind of zips open, right?
– Then it goes. – But what if there is no answer? What if someone created
this and they just, they’re obviously computer savvy and maybe they wrote something
to generate random runes. So, this dump may not be solvable. – Yeah, it absolutely crossed my mind and kinda horrified me that I might be working
on something impossible. – You wanna see this solved. I can tell, you got the fire, why? – I mean, for me, in the long run, if say, Cicada’s unsolvable, if I never find out who it is, the things I have learned, especially, and the people I have met and learned from them along the way has been so worth it that if it’s the 17 year
old kid laughing about it, that’s fine ’cause I learned
this much about cryptography. (slightly upbeat music) – Elonka made a great point
when she said we needed to get into the mind of the creator. We found a great potential lead. He’s one of the world’s top puzzle makers and he created a game with
a connection to Cicada we can’t ignore. Adrian Hon is a leader in the field of what’s called ARGs, or
alternate reality games. His clients include
corporations and media outlets looking to build buzz
around their content. And his games have been played by millions of devoted fans. Does it surprise you that puzzles and secret codes so appeals to us? – People want to believe
there is a sense of order in the universe and that
you have people who, from the dawn of time, they look up and they look at the stars and they think, “Why are
the stars in these shapes?” “Why is there a flood today?” There’s always been this appeal of people trying to understand the world and other people trying to create puzzles to hide knowledge, maybe
to make themselves seem more mysterious or more
powerful than they really are. – In early 2011, your approach to create a suite of puzzles in support of this BBC show on mathematics called The Code.
– Correct (mystical music) – They want to make mathematics more interesting for a younger audience. Young people like games, so let’s see if we can go and turn learning how mathematics
interacts with nature into the TV show. Everything from prime numbers, geometry, and how birds flock together and we think, “How can
we use those concepts “in a treasure hunt and
weave them into the program?” – As you know, the one
that interests us most is the very first one. Why cicadas? – Cicadas are known for
having a gestation period which is linked to prime numbers. Prime numbers are at the heart of nature and the heart of mathematics. – That puzzle comes out in June 2011. – Yeah. – Six months later, Cicada 3301 makes its international debut. – It’s a big coincidence. – There are some people who
have brought up the fact that whoever’s behind Cicada 3301 would have to be a very
accomplished game maker. – Sure.
– You would be a candidate to be that person. – That’s true, I mean, Cicada 3301 has a lot in common with
the games we’ve made. I think that’s one big
difference (chuckles) is that normally when we
make alternate reality games, we do it for money. And it’s not so clear to understand where the funding for
Cicada 3301 is coming from. – Would you be disappointed
or secretly thrilled, if 30 years from now, we still don’t know who Cicada 3301 is? – I’d be delighted if no one knows who he is.
– Why? – Because I think that
when most of the puzzles that we make are made to be solved. And clearly, this is a very different one. Not everything has to be solved overnight, maybe it’ll take 50
years or a hundred years and it’s better for it. (soft calming music) – [Girl] My name is Shadowwalker and I live on the internet now. – [Man] The game is, “Can you
keep your identity secret?” – We do amazing things here at N.S.A. – Every time there’s this
government intervention, you’re going, okay which
side are we getting? – This is the world that we’re living in. This is why we’re going to need Cicada. – [Announcer] If you release this tool, and you save somebody’s life, is it still a game? (upbeat music)

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